Jim Wells urged to sort out health unions' pay dispute
Health Minister Jim Wells has been urged to engage in talks with unions to end a pay row and prevent major strike action from continuing.
The call to sort out the dispute came as industrial action was taken by thousands of NHS staff, including 450 ambulance staff across Northern Ireland.
Around 1,000 staff involved in Unite and GMB unions staged a 12-hour stoppage yesterday after pay deal talks collapsed.
The Department of Health criticised the action as "extremely hard to justify".
Ambulance workers and community nurses were involved in pickets outside the Royal Victoria and City Hospitals in Belfast.
Unions and the health service had stressed that cover would be in place to deal with any emergencies.
Three ambulance crews involved in the strike action only responded to life-threatening 'category A' calls between midday and midnight.
Bad weather led to crews facing difficulties reaching emergency calls - particularly in our rural areas.
It is understood the freezing conditions also affected some ambulance crews getting to work.
Among those striking was David Moorehead, who said he hoped the minister would engage again with the unions. "There is a day planned for March 13 by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.
"Hopefully the minister will engage with the unions before that," he said.
Last night John McPoland from the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service said it was continuing to monitor and manage the impact on service delivery of industrial action by the unions.
"In relation to front line emergency ambulance crews, and in accordance with agreement reached with the trade unions, all crews reported for duty," said Mr McPoland .
"At 12 noon, three crews moved to a situation of being available to respond to category A calls only.
"A number of support and control staff have supported the industrial action and, where appropriate, managers have covered their duties within the trust."
He added that calls were prioritised on the "basis of clinical need".
Mr Wells said he is willing to discuss an "affordable" pay settlement after the protest over salary rises by members of the GMB and Unite.
The offer drawn up in Westminster includes a consolidated 1% pay rise for all staff up to senior level and an additional £200 payment for lower paid staff.
There is also a commitment from the Government to the NHS Pay Review Body and that it will continue to make future recommendations on pay rises for NHS staff in 2016/17.
Unions said the proposed pay deal had not been matched by the Department of Health in Northern Ireland and have criticised Mr Wells for not making an offer acceptable to members.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: "With the unions moving ahead across the water and settling a deal on the basis of no extra cost to the taxpayer, the desire of their colleagues here to persist with industrial action is extremely hard to justify."
The department spokeswoman added that "the door remains open" for further negotiations with the unions.
Northern Ireland was the only part of the UK where the health strikes went ahead yesterday, after the action was called off in England when a fresh offer was made to unions earlier this week. A further day of industrial action is planned for March 13 unless agreement can be reached. Ambulance staff are still dealing with life-threatening emergencies.